After you've been practicing pilates for a while, you might start to notice that you're tight in certain areas that you didn't even realize you had! IT Bands, anyone?! Well, your neck can also hold tension during a pilates class (or any type of exercise, actually) and you may not even realize it.
Why is this important?....
If your neck is over working, your core is underworking.
You might be thinking, there are so many things to think about during my pilates class- coordinating my movements, staying connected to the center, lengthening my legs, keeping neutral pelvis- now I'm supposed to think about my neck?? Um, yes.
But really, you don't have to think about your neck. You have to FEEL your neck. Practice "neutral" neck. Its best to have your teacher help you with this, because the correct neck position is not at all easy to find yourself. The following suggestions I have are good ways to feel "neutral neck", for any exercise, and any position.
Start with the space under your chin. A teacher-friend of mine used to say "there is a baby chick under your chin, don't crush, or drop, your chick!". If you drop your chin, you will crush your baby chick. If you lift your chin to high, you will drop your baby chick. A good way to feel that your chin is in the right place is to look straight ahead, out into the horizon.
Besides nodding up and down, your head and neck can move too far forward (like you're sticking your chin out) or too far back (like you're pressing the back of your head against the wall behind you). There is a neutral, middle-ground place, where your head should float on your neck. Interestingly, awareness of your ears can help you find the right position.
If you're upright, feel your ears being gently lifted up to the ceiling by two imaginary pieces of string. As your ears are being held up, your jaw is hanging with its natural weight, away from the ears. If you're laying on your back, imagine your ears dripping off your head into the mat.
And, while you're laying on your back, you obviously can't "look out on the horizon" to neutralize your neck. Instead, look straight up at the ceiling. Resist the urge to look down at your body while doing pilates on your back. When you look down at yourself, the nature curves of your neck flatten into the mat and it could strain.
Another great image for releasing neck tension is to envision the back of the base of your head, then your two ears on either side. Think of, and allow, space between the ears, in the back of your head.
I once learned a great way to release neck tension from my Alexander Technique teacher, Hope Gillerman. It works during all pilates exercises where you may, but hopefully don't, feel neck tension. I've even been told that it helps release tenion while driving and flying:
Slightly open your mouth, and float your tongue inside. Don't let it touch anything- not the inside of your mouth or your teeth. Don't allow your top and bottom teeth to touch each other, either.
Hopefully some of these ideas are useful to both students and teachers alike! For teachers, its another thing to notice about the body that isn't contributing to the exercise. For students, its another area of the body to feel, and be aware of any unnecessary tension that might get stuck there.